Garden City. You would think it was a beautiful place filled with flowers, but that was not what greeted me as I saw our new house at 254 Dorchester Road. We had moved into a new development, not exactly a Levittown, but close. Every house looked the same. Bricked fronts and the rest wooden sidings. A few steps to the front door, a front yard and a backyard. Rows and rows of the same. No trees, no flowers. Garden City.
At the end of Dorchester Road you could walk straight into the forest that everyone called, “the woods.” This was sometimes an escape into the wild at least in our childish imaginations. There was some sort of trail and once one walked it they came out into civilization again and the road to school, Saint Joseph’s. I don’t remember much about the school even though I must have completed the fourth grade there and began the fifth before it was all over.
I spent my childhood years in the new neighborhood establishing new friends. One was the little girl who lived across the street and there were others but they have fled from my memory. I don’t even recall this little girl’s name.
The family that moved next door to our house was Jewish, a couple with a little boy younger than me, and quite a brat. My sister took up babysitting and often sat for them. As my parents became acquainted with other families on the block, it became apparent that most took a dislike to the Jewish family. The neighborhood women asked my mother why she allowed my sister to babysit for them. I recall my mother being somewhat outraged at the question. Why wouldn’t she allow it? I thought maybe everyone just didn’t like the bratty boy since my friends felt that way. He was not included in our games.
This family was different and folks didn’t accept that. The neighborhood for blocks all around was singularly white, middle class, and most likely Christian although I can’t attest to that. Some were Catholics like us and we saw them at church. There were no black people anywhere.
I don’t recall the church at all. My best recollection of St. Joseph’s was one classroom, the fourth grade classroom, and the stairs to the lower level to the cafeteria. The stairs in particular stick in my memory. My father had given me a blue ball. I think it was a gift for my ninth birthday in August. I took it to school to play with in the playground and one lunchtime I bounced it down those stairs and it bounced away from me rolling underneath a section of the stairs and disappearing. I searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find it. It was as if it had evaporated into the air. I was distraught. I missed lunch. I ran home through the woods. Didn’t bother to wait for the school bus. Crying, I spilled out my loss to my mother who did not console me. So, the ball was gone and there was nothing I could do, she said. It was just a ball. Stop crying. Later I cried to my father and was so sorrowful that I had lost his gift. He told me it was okay. Not to be upset. But oh, how I wanted that ball back.
I knew at the time I lost the ball that it was a sign, a message, something bad was going to happen. I was going to lose something much more important.
Breaking my arm was the last thing my mother needed. It happened the summer before the fifth grade. My father, who had been diagnosed in January with colon-rectal cancer, was home at the time and my mother had her hands full caring for him. At loose ends that summer I was in the way. One day she sent me outside and I was told to sit on the front steps and not go anywhere. I disobeyed. I couldn’t resist crossing the street to play with the little girl I had befriended and some other neighborhood kids. We went into her back yard and ran around. I tripped over the piping of an unused hammock stand. I fell gracefully down, my right arm flung out. As it hit the ground all of the bones of my forearm shot up through the skin. Broken. Smashed. Fractured. I looked at it and knew I shouldn’t move it or those bones would crumble more. The other kids stood over me in alarm. Finally some of them ran across the street to get my mother.
My mother didn’t believe it when she was told that I fell and broke my arm. “Oh, she’s always falling and thinking she broke something,” she said. The kids gave her a solemn look and said, “No, Mrs. Angus. The bones are sticking out of her arm.”
The school bus was something new for me. I used to walk to school when we lived in Flushing, just a few blocks. Taking a bus was alien. The distance from our house to St. Joseph’s was a few miles. The bus was the best way to get there except for the kids that rode the bus. The ages ran from children in kindergarten to high school. There was always trouble riding the bus. Someone bullying someone else. A number of us kids decided getting up earlier and hiking through the woods was preferable. But I did ride the bus a lot. After breaking my arm I put the hard Plaster of Paris cast to good use by belting it on any kid who picked on me. Unfortunately this was not a good thing to do because along with my habit of sticking pencils down the top of the cast that covered my upper arm in order to scratch the itchy skin underneath, I disturbed the delicate placement of the fractured bones. Thus I was in for having the arm re-broken several times in order for the doctor to reset the bones.
The bones did finally reset. One day the cast was removed for good. Things could get back to normal. But there was no normal anymore. My father died. I never rode the bus again nor did I walk through the woods and the blue ball may still be lurking deeply somewhere under the stairs at St. Joseph Catholics School.